Magazine

Would you shake hands with someone reviled?

  • 15 August 2011
  • From the section Magazine
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Tyrants

Ambassadors and envoys often talk to people they see as tyrants or terrorists. But why do they do it, and do they always shake hands?

When former UN Humanitarian Envoy Jan Egeland met Joseph Kony, the feared and reclusive leader of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army, he made a point of not smiling.

He knew photographers were lurking, even in the remote camp.

"An image can haunt one for many years," he explains. "I was very aware that this was a mass murderer.

"He was known to kidnap thousands of children and kill even more. The relatives would see this image, everybody would see this image."

Meeting people like Kony is a fact of life for many career statesmen.

"You don't need to love the people you talk to but you have to talk to everybody whose assistance you need to solve the problems," says former Finnish President Marrti Ahtisaari. His three decades of mediation in trouble spots across the world won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008.

He gives an everyday example to explain his pragmatic approach.

"Let's say you bump into somebody's car. You don't stop somebody who is passing you and negotiate with them. You have to talk to somebody with whom you have a quarrel."

This is diplomacy of the most difficult, if not dangerous kind.  

"The bad people, the mass murderers, the warlords, the dictators, can often unlock the situation for others," insists Egeland.

Image caption Bill Richardson has come face-to-face with Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak (above)

But he cautions: "It must never be an exotic meeting with somebody famous. There must always be a greater purpose - to get civilians free, to have an exchange of wounded, to discuss a cessation of hostilities."

To get access to the millions trapped in the worst famine in a generation, the US recently eased restrictions on dealing with Somali rebels al-Shabab, classified as a terrorist group for its links to al-Qaeda.

"If you're in the diplomatic business, much of your time can be spent with people you don't feel any great affinity for," says Sir Ivor Roberts.

As the British ambassador to Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s, he dealt with a series of leaders who were later indicted by the UN War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague.

He says it is part of the job to "have to hold your nose as you go into meetings with them".

Big challenges often attract larger than life personalities including former US Governor and UN Ambassador Bill Richardson who has met men dubbed tyrants on virtually every continent. He's often been sent on rescue missions to free captured Americans and brings a certain style to the table.

"You look them in the eye, you sit next to them, you sometimes physically hug, not in a way that shows friendship, but in a way that shows respect," says a man who even swapped baseball stories with Fidel Castro.

Image caption Leaders can find themselves meeting those who are widely reviled

"You listen to them, you're humble you don't use the traditional talking points - 'you're a terrible man'. I never say that to somebody I'm trying to get something out of," he says with the kind of full-throated laugh that is part of his charm offensive.

Governor Richardson sees the photograph as being, on occasion, a necessary evil.

In a 1995 meeting in Baghdad with Saddam Hussein to secure the release of two captured Americans, the two men stood for the cameras.

"He kidded me," Richardson remembers, "saying 'this isn't very good for me politically', and I said, 'well Mr President it's not very good for me either, you're not very popular in America'."

Careful manoeuvres through the protocol matter. But in the end, results are what count.

"When you are dealing with these tyrants, it is incumbent on those who do this work to agree on steps they can take," emphasises Joyce Neu. She's spent decades on conflict resolution including advising former US President Jimmy Carter on his mediation efforts in some two dozen countries.

There must be "a sign to you there is something behind their interest in meeting with you more than just having you legitimise them - if that's possible - by showing up at their door."

Image caption Footage of Donald Rumsfeld meeting Saddam Hussein in the 1980s was used by his opponents

Critics insist meetings reward rogues for bad behaviour. This argument is invoked by governments who refuse to deal with groups such as the Palestinian movement Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah. They're classified as terrorists by several Western countries.

Ahtisaari disagrees. "I don't think we give much legitimacy because they have already been given legitimacy, particularly where elections have been held."

But what if the gulf between world views and values is simply too vast to make any progress difficult, if not impossible?

"It's very different and difficult with the North Koreans because they basically live in an isolated vacuum," Richardson admits about a country he's been visiting since the mid 90s.

But he underlines the importance of trying to build a relationship in order to communicate when there's a crisis. "Here's a country that has maybe three to four nuclear weapons, two million men-in-arms, they've got missiles, they're dangerous."

One person's tyrant can be someone else's legitimate leader. The former Afghan Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salaam Zaeef, agrees with the need to talk. "Like it or not, we are part of the world," he says. But he says he draws the line at talking to the US military.

For the mediators, it's better to talk than to fight - although sometimes both are seen as necessary.

For some, it's simply the conviction it would be unconscionable to stand by and do nothing, whatever their reservations.

"I remember an old aunt who said to me: 'How did you end up with all these terrible people? You were such a nice boy,'" recalls Norwegian Jan Egeland.

"If you want to make a difference where human rights are most at stake, you have to meet them, put pressure on them."